The Smile, by Thomas Webster, RA (1800-1886). 1842. Oil on canvas. 38.2 x 70 x 5.2 cm. Guildhall Art Gallery, London, permanent collection. Accession no. 745, bequeathed by George Gassiot in 1902. Photographs and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee, the photographs reproduced here by kind permission of the City of London Corporation. See also its companion piece, The Frown. [Click on the images here to enlarge them.]

The painting in its frame.

The gallery label explains that The Smile and its companion piece, The Frown, both show a row of village schoolchildren reacting to their schoolmaster, as described in Oliver Goldsmith's popular narrative poem The Village Schoolmaster. The lines illustrated are as follows:

A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Well had the boding tremblers learn'd to trace
The days disasters in his morning face;
Full well they laugh'd with counterfeited glee,
At all his jokes, for many a joke had he:
Full well the busy whisper, circling round,
Convey'd the dismal tidings when he frown'd:
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.

Here, then, the schoolmaster is smiling and telling jokes, and the children are smiling in response, at least pretending to find the jokes funny, and even sharing their pleasure with each other — with two exceptions. The face of one child, who wears a dunce's cap, is shadowed, and another child, right at the end of the row, looks dubious. The latter has his head bound up, for earache or toothache perhaps, but seems to be eating a bun! Every child's posture and features are so natural that the composition is neither sentimental nor nostalgic, and the implication that they smile only to please gives another layer of realism as well. Apart from the wood-framed writing slate held by the boy on the far left, the clothes, the dunce's cap and the head-binding on the boy on the far right, nothing is dated here!

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Created 27 November 2018